Modern politics is as much about shadow boxing as it is about substantial conflict. So much so, it’s difficult even for seasoned observers to tell the difference between the two at times.
Take the recent ‘war of position’ on the economic crisis. The opposition parties and the BBC (desperately trying to find someone else’s foot to shoot for a change) became obsessed with trying to get Gordon Brown to say ‘sorry’. The frenzy lasted a fortnight - which is light years in media terms - and portended to great high-mindedness.
After all, the current financial crisis developed on Mr Brown's watch as chancellor and prime minister. He constantly claimed he had made ‘boom and bust economics’ a thing of the past. Then he was saying it was everybody else’s fault without being prepared to shoulder an identifiable bit of the blame himself.
Opposition leader David Cameron enthusiastically joined the 'sorry' hunt. But so, less predictably, did ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, under the guise of improving standards in public life.
Brown, however, didn't and doesn’t want to play such games. He said 'sorry' for Smeargate, but only "admitted I should have done more" on the economy. The PM knows that while the public and the press bay for grovelling contrition, as soon as they get it they will interpret it as failure. Besides, he believes passionately that the financial collapse really wasn’t his fault.
Ten years ago the man in the hot seat at Number 10 was calling for the kind of national and international regulatory mechanisms the G20 are wrestling with now. At the time such ideas were dismissed as dinosaur politics by the brave new apostles of neo-liberalism. Now some semblance of them is debated with fresh interest as Brown enjoys the world stage, Obama's praise and some flak from France and Germany.
What angers the PM is that those accusing him of not being tougher in the past showed no enthusiasm then for the measures they now want implemented – or, in some cases, still don’t.
So Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension and similar outrages become a suitable displacement issue for everyone to wax indignant about. Finding someone righteous in the land seems as hard today as it was for the great Hebrew prophets.
Meanwhile, a group of ‘Green New Deal’ economists, including two advisers to leading church agencies, are saying that this is a phoney scrap based on reputations, ratings and electoral anxiety. The real issue, they argue, is a ‘triple crunch’ comprising a credit-fuelled financial crisis, climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil.
This presages a period of global re-adjustment so great that even President Obama’s stimulus programme and Prime Minister Brown’s international rescue package end up looking like small change.
Political economist Ann Pettifor and her colleagues say the real remedy is a national and international plan for a low energy future that involves giving nations greater autonomy over domestic monetary and fiscal policy, adopting tougher carbon targets, massive investment in environmental technology, re-regulating capital flows, and de-merging the banking sector.
Nation states and corporate interests struggle to cope with such huge ideas. A new agenda is being forced by the extent to which the basics we have relied on, including food, housing, employment and fuel, have become prone to sudden collapse. But a joint turnaround is much more difficult than playing factional blame games.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.
This article has been developed from the regular ‘Westminster Watch’ column Simon Barrow writes for Third Way magazine, with acknowledgments. http://www.thirdway.org.uk/